Can the Insurance Company Refuse to Pay Medical Bills after a Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Settlement?

This is a question I frequently hear not only from clients but also from people who have settled a claim, with or without a lawyer, at sometime in the past. In fact, sometimes many years have gone by since the settlement before this issue arises and I receive a phone call. The question is usually something along these lines:

“I settled my work comp case but medical was left open, now the insurance company won’t pay for a doctor visit (or an MRI, surgery, etc. ) – how can they do this?”

This can be a very confusing issue after the settlement of a work comp claim, whether or not you were represented by an attorney. It would seem, from a common sense standpoint, that if future medical coverage was supposedly “left open” for your work injury, then the insurance company should have to pay any future medical bills. However, it’s not quite that simple, for several reasons:

1. The work comp insurance company always has the right to challenge whether medical treatment is reasonable, necessary and related to the work injury.  Regardless of whether an injury claim is accepted, decided in your favor by a judge or settled, the insurance company is not obligated to pay every medical bill without question. The burden of proof remains on the injured employee in a Minnesota work comp case, which means that you have to prove that any disputed medical treatment is reasonable, necessary, and related to the work injury.

This typically requires some medical support for your claim, either in the form of medical records which clearly explain the situation or in the form of a medical report from a treating physician which addresses the disputed issues and supports your position. For this reason, it is very important to have a doctor who not only understands the work comp system but is also willing to support you, if necessary, with a letter or medical report. (For more information about selecting a doctor in a work comp case, see our previous blog post here).

2. Months or even years have passed without treatment for your injuries. If you haven’t treated for your work injury in a long time, the insurance company will not have any up-to-date information regarding your claim and they will want to make sure that the medical care is still related to the work injury. Sometimes, all the insurance company needs is updated medical records which will demonstrate that your physicians are still relating your treatment to the original work injury. If the medical records do not clearly make that connection, it may be necessary to get a letter or report from your doctor. In any event, the insurance company is entitled to get updated information before deciding whether to pay a medical bill or authorize treatment.

3. You have been back to work for a different employer since the settlement. The insurance company will likely want to make sure that you haven’t had a new injury or that your new job has not aggravated the injury that was covered by your previous settlement. Again, particularly in a case where you haven’t made any medical claims for some period of time, the insurance company will need updated information before making a decision on any medical bills. In fact, if you have returned to work in a different job and your symptoms have increased or worsened, you may very well have a new work comp claim against your new employer for a permanent or substantial aggravation of your underlying medical condition.

4. Your current problems were not specifically addressed in the settlement agreement.  Let’s assume that the original injury and settlement involved your left shoulder and you are now having problems with your left elbow. Your doctor suspects that the elbow problems may be coming from the shoulder or are somehow related to the shoulder injury. The language in the settlement papers describing what injuries were covered will be very important. In this type of case, it may come down to arguing about whether the elbow problems are related to the shoulder or whether they represent a new, unrelated problem. These types of issues arise frequently and are normally going to be the subject of litigation.

5. The medical treatment being denied was closed out under the terms of the settlement.  The settlement papers you signed (a Stipulation for Settlement) described the injuries and claims you were making, the claims or defenses of the insurance company and the terms of the settlement. In many cases, even where future medical remains open, there is an agreement to close out certain, limited future medical treatment such as acupuncture/acupressure, massage therapy, health club memberships, psychiatric/psychological treatment, etc. This means that the insurance company is no longer responsible for any of those types of treatment even if they are related to your original injury.

Also, medical treatment for specific body parts may have been closed out by the terms of the settlement if there were disputes over the nature and extent of your original injuries. For example, you may have originally claimed an injury to your neck and low back but the terms of the settlement may have only left open future medical treatment for your neck, closing out any low back medical claims.

What you can do to help avoid disputes over  future medical coverage after a settlement:

-Understand exactly what body parts and what type of medical coverage remains open and what was closed out by the terms of the settlement;

-Keep a copy of your settlement papers for reference;

-Make sure any and all medical treatment for your injuries after a settlement is billed to the work comp insurer, not to your health insurance. This helps ensure that the work comp insurance company remains aware of your ongoing medical issues if something serious for expensive arises such as surgery or the need for an MRI;

-Make sure to always tell your physician that the condition you are treating for is related to a work injury and give as many details as you can, such as the date of the injury and what body parts were injured, so there is a paper trail of any ongoing medical care or treatment from your work injury.

These are just some of the potential medical scenarios which might arise after a settlement and some of the things you can do to lessen the likelihood of more litigation on your claim. It probably goes without saying that you should not settle a work comp claim without first speaking with an experienced work comp attorney.

If you have been injured on the job and have questions about the Minnesota work comp system, please don’t hesitate to give us a call. You can contact us, anytime, with questions about your case or to arrange an absolutely free consultation. It won’t cost you anything and we will always give you our honest assessment about whether you need a lawyer to represent you.

Remember, you are dealing with an insurance company which handles hundreds or thousands of claims every day. They have experienced claims adjusters and attorneys managing their files. Even if you don’t need a lawyer at the moment, a little information about the work comp system can make a big difference for you in your dealings with the insurance company. At Bradt Law Offices, we have been providing assistance to injured workers all across northern Minnesota and the Iron Range for more than 33 years.

As always, thank you for visiting our blog and please spread the word that we are a good source of work comp information and assistance for workers injured in northern Minnesota and anywhere on the Iron Range

What If Work Comp Refuses to Pay for Surgery on Your Minnesota Work Injury Claim?

As I try to keep this blog updated, I spend part of each day reviewing the search terms that readers are using as they search for information about Minnesota work comp issues. Among the most common search terms I see are searches like this:

“The workers’ compensation insurance company won’t pay for surgery-what can I do?”

“The work comp IME doctor says I don’t need surgery-can I fight it?”

“Who decides if work comp has to pay for my surgery?”

This is one of the more common disputes that I deal with on a weekly basis in my work comp practice here in northern Minnesota. Even if your claim has been accepted by the work comp insurance company and they are paying wage loss or other benefits, they still might refuse to pay for a surgery recommended by your treating doctor or specialist. At that point, you really don’t have any choice but to hire a lawyer and file a request for a medical conference or hearing.

How can the insurance company deny your doctor’s surgical recommendation?

In general terms, every medical dispute comes down to three factors. The factors are whether the treatment or procedure is:

– reasonable,
– necessary, and
– related to the work injury

If the insurance company questions whether the proposed surgery is reasonable, necessary or related to your admitted work injury, they have the legal right to get their own medical opinion before deciding whether to approve the surgery. This medical opinion is called an Independent Medical Exam (IME).   (For more  information about an IME, you can see this previous post- “An Independent Medical Exam in Your Minnesota Work Comp Case”)

Once the insurance company gets a report from the IME doctor, they will decide whether to approve or deny the surgery (or any other medical procedure which might be in dispute).

What are my options once the surgery is denied by the insurance company?

If you have an attorney, he will handle all of this for you. He will generally request a report from your surgeon explaining what surgery has been recommended, why the surgery is necessary and how it is related to your injury. Sometimes, the only dispute is whether the surgery is really necessary, particularly if there are other more conservative medical treatments which have not yet been tried ( physical therapy, injections, etc).

In other cases, there may be a dispute as to whether the recommended surgery is related to the work injury. The IME doctor will often give an opinion stating that your work injury was only a” temporary aggravation “ of a pre-existing condition, and that the surgery is therefore not related to the work injury, but rather to your pre-existing condition.  ( The burden of proof is on the employee to establish a medical claim, so you will need some medical support or explanation from your treating physician if that is the issue)

There are also treatment parameters which require certain conditions or prior treatment to be done before a surgical procedure is authorized under the work comp law. An insurance company may sometimes rely on these to deny prescribed surgery or treatment.

 

What are the procedures for getting surgery approved?

Generally, a surgical dispute will require a formal hearing before a work comp judge. The process begins with getting the dispute “certified”, after the insurance company has an opportunity to approve or refuse the request for surgery. Once the insurance company has refused to authorize the surgery, the dispute is officially “certified” and you may request a hearing to have the matter decided. At the hearing, a compensation judge will listen to your testimony and review all the medical records and reports before making a decision. Either party may appeal the decision, which may delay the matter even longer.

While you are not required to have an attorney to file a request for a medical hearing, it would generally be a bad idea to represent yourself. The insurance company will have an attorney representing them, which would put you at a very serious disadvantage when it comes to knowing the rules and procedures of presenting a case to a work comp judge.

Can I just have my health insurance pay for the surgery?

This is an option under certain circumstances. Obviously, you need to have health insurance to make this an option. In addition, most health insurers will not pay medical treatment related to a work injury unless the work comp insurance company has specifically denied authorization for the treatment or refused to pay medical bills. At that point, the health insurer will generally step in and pay the bills  while you continue to pursue the claim within the work comp system. If you ultimately win or settle the medical dispute, the work comp insurance company will have to  reimburse your health insurance and also reimburse you for any out-of-pocket medical expenses related to the disputed medical procedure.

Are there advantages to having work comp pay for the surgery instead of my health insurance?

Absolutely. There are a number of reasons why you are much better off having work comp pay for your surgery, rather than your health insurance. Some of these reasons are:

– work comp pays 100% of the medical bills, with no co-pays or deductibles
– work comp will usually have to pay you wage loss benefits until you can return to work after the surgery
– work comp will reimburse you for your medical mileage
– you may be entitled to a permanent partial disability (PPD) payment if it is work comp
– the injury/surgery will now be “on the books” as work comp, which protects you if you have a flareup or more problems later on

Our Recommendation

If the work comp insurance company refuses to authorize a recommended surgery, or seems to be delaying a decision or otherwise “dragging things out”, it would be a good idea to consult an attorney. Sometimes, all it takes is the involvement of a good work comp attorney to get the insurance company’s attention and make them stop screwing around with you and your claim.

A good attorney will know what medical support is needed to take a dispute to a hearing and will be able to get the records and medical reports necessary to get the surgery approved.  (Assuming you are fortunate enough to have a doctor who is cooperative and supportive of your work comp claim – unfortunately, not all doctors are. If interested, see this previous post-  “Choosing a Doctor for your Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Claim”

If you have questions about a medical dispute, or any other aspect of a Minnesota work comp claim, feel free to contact me at any time, for an absolutely free consultation. I will always try to answer your questions, give you my honest opinion about whether you need a lawyer and let you know if  there is something I can do to help you. I regularly speak with people who don’t necessarily need a lawyer and I tell them just that.

How much does it cost to hire a lawyer for a work comp claim?   See this post

I hope you have found this information helpful. If you have, please share our website or blog with anyone you know who may have questions about a work comp claim in northern Minnesota.

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